Friday, September 25, 2009

Judging from the turnout Thursday by members of the Joint Economic Committee for a hearing titled “The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy,” lawmakers are not too keen to help an industry that is often critical of Capitol Hill.

Just three of the 20 House and Senate members showed up for the hearing, which the Democratic chairman left early to vote on a House bill, putting the ranking Republican in charge. But after Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, returned, she emphatically declared what the hearing was most definitely not about.

“I want to be very clear: This is not about bailouts. No one’s talking about bailouts. We’re through with bailouts,” the chairman said to the two other committee members who bothered to show up.

The issue is dicey and raises a fundamental question: While the Bill of Rights guarantees a free press, should the government seek to aid an industry that acts as a watchdog over the federal bureaucracy?

“We don’t believe direct governmental financing is appropriate for an industry whose core mission is news gathering, analysis and dissemination, often involving that very same government,” John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said at Thursday’s hearing.

With newspapers nationwide making drastic cuts to staff and budgets — and several facing bankruptcy — Mrs. Maloney and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, have introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act of 2009. The legislation would help community and metropolitan newspapers by allowing them to become nonprofit organizations, not unlike public broadcasting networks.

“The federal government has acknowledged that the press is an institution which is afforded special protections by name,” Mrs. Maloney said at the hearing.

“In this spirit, I think that the government can help foster solutions for this industry in ways which protect the independence of newspapers and enables their objective reporting to thrive in a new economic and media climate.”

But analysts and ethicists say that the Maloney-Cardin legislation would come with one major string attached: while newspapers could continue to cover politics and political campaigns, they would be prohibited from making political endorsements. That rubs some the wrong way.

“Increasingly, the production of news will require subsidy, and the question is really from where and under what conditions that subsidy will come,” Paul Starr of Princeton University said. “The problems that this challenge raises are difficult because of the legitimate concern that any subsidy, whether from government or private philanthropy, may induce subservience and dependency in the press.”

The communications and public affairs professor said that if newspapers go the route of nonprofit status, government subsidies cannot favor one viewpoint over another and shouldn’t favor print media over online media, for example.

“Many Americans would be more comfortable seeing support for journalism come from a great variety of private philanthropic sources than from the government,” he added.

Mr. Sturm and other panelists at Thursday’s hearing insisted they were not there for a bailout or any special subsidy. Yet several said Congress could play a vital role in easing the day-to-day operations of newspapers.

With older readers passing away and younger readers turning to alternative sources for news, newspapers have been hammered. Ad revenues dropped 23 percent from $49.5 billion to $38 billion between 2006 and 2008.

Ad spending has held steady during the first two quarters of 2009, and stocks of newspaper companies recently surged on optimism that huge budget cuts have done enough to stem the tide. Still, the hearing came on a day when Roll Call newspaper, which recently merged with Congressional Quarterly, laid off 44 workers in a major overhaul of the organization.

A new poll found that eight in 10 Americans oppose any plan to spend tax dollars to help failing newspapers. The survey, conducted by Sacred Heart University, found that 38.1 percent of respondents said they read newspapers less often than they did five years ago. Nearly half, 45 percent, said they think the Internet is “adequately covering for failing newspapers.”

While Mrs. Maloney said no bailout is under consideration, the idea has moved forward in recent months - and last week got a bump from President Obama, who said he would be “happy to look at” bills before Congress that would give news organizations tax breaks to restructure as nonprofit companies.

Mr. Obama, who often complains about conservative outlets like Fox News, said serious journalism is worth saving.

“I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which announced exactly a year ago broad cost-cutting moves amid declining ad revenue.

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